The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee held a public hearing March 15 on legislation that establishes an open enrollment program that allows public schools to become “schools of choice” and enroll students from outside the district boundaries. The bill allows students and families to choose school settings that work best for each individual student.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen delivered the following testimony supporting LD 1854, An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students.
Testimony of Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of Education
Senator Langley, Representative Richardson, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:
My name is Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of the Department of Education, and I am here today representing the Department of Education and the Governor in support of LD 1854, An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students.
As members of the Committee may know, I have two daughters, Katherine, who is nine, and Emily, who is twelve. They are both enrolled in the Camden-Rockport public school system and both are doing extraordinarily well.
We are very fortunate that this is so, because they, like all other students, are in the schools and classrooms they are in, grouped for instruction with the other students they are grouped with, and being taught by the educators who are teaching them because of two factors that are totally unrelated to their needs as learners.
Along with their classmates, my girls are in the grade levels and classrooms they are in because of their physical ages. If they were each a year younger or a year older, they would be in entirely different classrooms, with entirely different classmates, taught by entirely different teachers, learning entirely different things.
They attend the schools they attend because of our street address. That is the factor that determines where they, and most other students, attend school. If we lived ten miles in any direction from where we live now, they would be attending school in an entirely different school system.
The barriers of time—the way we group children for instruction based on physical age rather than educational need—we are in the process of overcoming. As this Committee well knows, we have schools and districts across Maine that are moving away from the age-based grouping of students, and toward a system where students move at their own pace, upon mastery of learning outcomes. This is a model of education that this Committee, with its support of LD 1422, has endorsed.
The bill before you today seeks to address the barrier of space: the way that a student’s physical address determines the educational options to which they have access. It does that by creating what is known as an open-enrollment option for our public schools and approved private schools.
Open enrollment is a school choice option available in states across the nation (I have attached to my testimony an inventory of open enrollment policies in each state), and is, we believe, a way to expand school choice options to more students in a manageable and fair way.
I use the term “expand school choice options” because it is important, as we begin the debate on this bill, to acknowledge that thousands of students in Maine have school choice options. If you live in one of Maine’s school choice communities, you have school choice options. If you are able to arrange for a superintendent’s agreement, by which two superintendents agree to transfer a student from one district to another, you have school choice options. If you come from a family of means who can afford to move to a different school district, or who can afford private school tuition, you have school choice options.
If you are not in one of those groups, however, the school your children attend is determined by the street you live on. You do not have the choice to send your children to a school that might better meet their educational needs and interests. The school your children attend is determined by lines on a map, many of which, in this State, at least, were drawn centuries ago.
The bill before you seeks to address this inequity in school choice options by allowing school districts and approved private schools the option of opening their enrollment to students outside their district boundaries.
Turning to the bill itself, you will see that we propose to create a new section of statute, Section 5207 of Title 20-A, which establishes the Maine Open Enrollment Program, with the goal of the program, which appears at the top of page 2 of the bill, to “expand the publicly funded educational opportunities available to students in the State.”
The way the program would work is laid out in the sections of the bill that follow. School districts could decide whether they want to participate in the program at all or not, and if so, would need to establish a series of policies, including deciding how many students they are prepared to accept from outside their borders and for which programs or grade levels. They are to make known the number of available slots, and are to describe their educational programs, and, if they are a private school approved to receive public tuition dollars, are to make clear the amount of any tuition and fees they would charge in excess of what they would receive in tuition funding.
It is important to stop here for a moment and note that unlike what we might think of as a voucher-type school choice program, an open enrollment model puts schools and school districts in charge. They decide whether to accept students under the program or not and, if so, which programs and grade levels to make available to open enrollment students. They are the ones that control enrollment numbers and as a result, can budget and plan accordingly.
Under our proposal, any student in any district in Maine would be allowed to apply to attend any open enrollment school in the state during an enrollment window in the spring. If the number of students applying to attend the school exceeds the number of available slots, a random selection process must be used to determine which students will be accepted to attend. Open enrollment schools, public or private, may not “cherry-pick” students from other schools and districts. Once enrolled, the student must be allowed to attend the school to which he or she has been accepted and would be considered a resident of that district from that point forward.
The term “resident of the district” is an important one, because for the purposes of transfers between public schools, at least, the law treats that student as if the student actually moved to the new district. As indicated on Page 4 of the bill, once the student has transferred to the new school, the “count” of that student, which is used to determine state funding, is to transfer as well. As a result, state allocation for that student will, in the year after the student actually switches schools, transfer to the receiving school (the state’s “count” for the purposes of state funding is based on enrollment the previous year).
The open-enrolled student would also be a resident of the new district for the purposes of special education. Page 4 of the bill contains language that shifts the responsibility for the provision of special education services to the new school unit upon the student’s enrollment there, with the state allocation, including special education funding, following the student there in the second year. In the first year, the receiving district would bill the sending district for special education costs.
The bill does allow approved private schools to open their enrollment as well, but as the State does not directly fund private schools and students don’t become residents of a private school, the bill treats this situation differently. Private schools could choose to open their enrollment under this program, and would have to do as public schools would do and establish the number of open slots, accept applications, and use a random selection process to determine enrollment. The “count” of the student would remain with the sending school district, which would pay tuition to the private school, just as is done today in school choice communities. Sending districts would retain responsibility for the provision of special education services and would either contract with the private school to provide those services or make other arrangements.
For transfers to both public and private schools, parents are responsible for transportation to the open enrollment school, though open enrollment schools and districts can decide to provide transportation services for students if they wish.
I realize that all of this is complex and I know that the Committee did a lot of this kind of work on the charter school bill, but we purposefully tried to take the simplest approach possible, which was to imagine what it would be like if the student was able to overcome the barrier of space I spoke about earlier and, in the case of a transfer from one public school to another, actually move to the new school district. What would happen is that they would become a resident of the new district, the new district would have the educational responsibilities that exist under law, and, after a year, the state allocation would follow the student to the new district.
There are some issues we’d like to continue to explore with the Committee. One is the issue of minimum receiver districts. Under this model, the state allocation would shift to the new district a year after the student does, but for minimum receivers, state allocation and state subsidy are two very different things. Minimum receivers would, for the most part, get no additional state funding for open enrollment students they accept, though the possibility does exist that minimum receivers, were they to grow their enrollment over time through open enrollment, would one day no longer be minimum receivers. Still, it is an issue we’d like to explore further with the Committee, along with the issue of students coming to open enrollment schools from existing school choice districts.
The bill does have one other element that is important to note, and that is that it takes steps to tighten up the existing language on superintendent’s agreements, making it clear that the only thing that superintendents are to consider with regard to approving transfers between districts is the student’s best interest. When a transfer request from a parent is denied by one or both superintendents, parents can appeal that decision to the Commissioner, and in my own experience I have had superintendents tell me confidentially that they have denied transfer requests because they have been instructed by the school board to do so, which is not something that school boards have the authority to do under law. The language in the bill simply makes that more clear.
School choice is a complex issue, but we believe the bill before you does expand options for students in a way that is manageable and fair. Expanding options is the goal of the bill, and if we are serious about building a system of education that is designed to meet the needs of all students—not just those who live in certain towns or who come from families of means—we need to provide students and families with more school options.
It is for these reasons that the Department and the Governor’s Office are testifying in support of L LD 1854 An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students. I am happy to take any questions the Committee may have, and I will be available for work sessions on this bill.